On The "Boy's Club" In Nashville's Songwriting Scene That We Aren't Talking About
If you're living your best life right now, then you already know that Kacey Musgraves released her new album "Pageant Material" a few days ago. As a songwriter and as a human being, I am a huge fan of her work—but this time around there was one particular song on the album that resonated with me beyond the bittersweet humor and sentimentality that her songs usually inspire. I know her "Good Ol' Boys Club" is probably meant to be a not-so-subtle dig at Taylor Swift's Big Machine label, but as a songwriter who tried to make it in Nashville, I felt it spoke to so much more than that. Namely, the incredibly warped culture of the way that older men treat women in the songwriting industry.
To start, let me tell you a little bit about the people who are in charge of the Nashville songwriting scene: It is overwhelmingly older men. You won't understand just how true this is until you're there, listening to songwriters play their "big hits" at songwriter's rounds at the Bluebird Café, when all of a sudden you realize nearly every hit you grew up with and everything that is playing on the radio right now is written by an old dude with a beer belly and cowboy boots. (Sorry, everyone who thought Brad Paisley was writing all his own stuff.)
I don't begrudge them their success. Some of their songs are beautiful—testaments to the perseverance of love, the breadth of human experience, the kinds of feelings that you can't quite put into words yourself but are so satisfied to hear put into a song. Do most of them deserve their success? Sure. But for a group of men who can write so romantically and respectfully about women, they have zero interest in working with women themselves—and worse off, they also can produce a ton of genuinely gross creeps.
To be clear, this isn’t an article about how the patriarchy drove me out of Nashville, or some boohoo about how men were mean to me. This is an article about how I endured in Nashville despite the pervasive and occasionally dangerous “boy’s club” nature of it, and this is an article I am writing because the women who are there right now, in the position that I was, know that it would be the end of their careers if they wrote it themselves. Well howdy, everyone. Nashville already chewed me up and spit me out, and I’ve got nothing else to lose.
I started playing in Nashville when I was 20 years old. Doe-eyed, bushy-tailed, with dreams of becoming the next Lee Ann Womack, I went to a songwriting mixer my first week. The man hosting it was well-known and respected in the community for helping songwriters. I was thrilled when he wanted to talk to me, and over the moon when he said he liked my sound. But then in the next few days, he was everywhere. Calling me, leaving weird voicemails, showing up at all of my gigs and putting his arm around my waist and shoulders, talking upsettingly close to my face, and finding any excuse to touch me even when I asked him not to. He'd follow me out to my car and ask for rides, imply that I owed him favors for introducing me to his friends, and publicly guilt me into telling him where I was playing next.
And here's the thing: He was so well respected. I hated him, but I could not deny the fact that if I offended this man, that I would be professionally screwed within days of hitting the Nashville scene.
Only after my parents showed up to visit a few weeks later did I manage to shake him off; something about seeing the humans who raised me sitting in the front row of a gig must have scared him a little. Later another guy from that same mixer would randomly call me at 2AM from the number on my business card, clearly hoping for something I wouldn't give, and then reveal to me that this guy was spreading rumors about me being a "slut" and a "tease". I was brand new, and I was devastated. I'd been ready to face all the rejection in the world professionally—I had not emotionally prepared myself to deal with this.
To make it worse, I reached out to another contact I had in town, a woman who was also well-respected in the community. I expressed my concern, and asked her if I could go to her with names of men when they wanted to work with me just to make sure that they were okay to work with. I will never forget the way she looked me up and down, her eyes suddenly critical behind her glasses, and told me, "You can sleep your way to the middle, honey, but you can't sleep your way to the top." That's right—the attitudes were so pervasive that even women were suspicious of other women for perpetuating the ugly cycle of it.
My story is not unique—not to me, or to any other young woman who tries to succeed in the industry in Nashville. This scenario would repeat itself several times in the year that I spent in the city, and I would watch it happen to all of my female songwriting friends as well. Welcome to Nashville. Can't live with the creepy old men, but you can't live without 'em.
Because here is the thing we cannot deny: You can't piss these men off. Go to a songwriting panel. Go pitch to a publisher. Go to any given established songwriter night anywhere. You'll see women, of course, but for the most part it's old men, old men, and more old men. They are, without a doubt, in charge of the industry right now, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.
In my last and most recent trip to Nashville, I attended a workshop where even a younger successful songwriter told a room full of impressionable young girls to "stop writing songs that only appeal to women" because the industry wanted more "inclusive" songs. (Read: More trash about painted on jeans, how we're sipping on Corona, and getting naked on someone's tailgate.) I waited all of ten seconds after he left to pull all those girls aside and call bull on him, but for every situation where there isn't someone like me to tell a bunch of 15-year-olds to ignore terrible, soul-sucking advice, there are ten situations where they take it to heart.
We've been told to go out and push past these things, to go "break the glass ceiling," if you will—but there can't be a ceiling for women in this industry when there is barely even a floor for them to walk on. These older songwriters invite boys who come from out of town with barely any experience into their powows and they tell the reputable female songwriters they're "booked solid" for months. They do most of their business and make most of their connections at bars late at night over beers. I accepted that that was part of the deal, so I bucked up stayed out until midnight most nights (only to get up for 5AM shifts at my day job). Any time I tried to partake, the men called me "cute," flirted with me inappropriately, or altogether ignored me. I never had a chance to prove myself because I was never taken seriously. A fellow male songwriter who was my age and a good friend of mine? Well, he'd walk out with Luke Bryan's line notes and a promised listen from a rep, without playing a damn thing to prove himself first.
At this point you're probably wondering about my talent level. I am a brutally honest at self assessing, so this I will say: I'm a great singer. (So is everyone in that city; big whoop.) My songwriting style can loosely be described as "if Alison Krauss and Michelle Branch had a baby, a baby that really hated pick-up trucks". Like a lot of people in Nashville, I had three or four really great songs, a handful of good ones, and probably a hundred duds that never saw the light of day. I was at workshops almost every day, co-writing and getting critiqued, and that part I loved. There were two men in the industry who genuinely helped me, and I am grateful not just for their help, but for waiting me out when I was highly suspicious of them at first. By the time I left, I was getting noticed at workshops, talking to several publishers, and well-known enough in the area that people would occasionally drunkenly sing my own songs back at me at gigs.
I ultimately left not because I wasn't successful, but because I was miserable, and that's on me. Some people are equipped to live that kind of life, and I am not one of them. But now that I'm out for good, I have no problem airing out all the "help" that most male songwriters did offer whenever they bothered to pay attention to girls like me:
At its mildest, I was told by men to “dye my hair” so I would “look less like Taylor Swift (the literal only physical similarity between us is our hair color) and that I should get rid of some songs on my repertoire because “nobody likes man hating songs” (Cassadee Pope’s “Wasting All My Tears On You,” Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs,” and Jana Kramer’s “Why Ya Wanna” would get major airplay on the charts in that same year). At its most annoying, I was told I “couldn’t just show up to gigs without wearing makeup,” because that wasn’t my “brand”. And at its scariest, I was butt grabbed, followed to my car multiple times by older songwriters asking for rides in the dead of night, and stalked over several weeks at the Bluebird by a genuinely deranged man to the point where I had to ask somebody else's mom to walk me to my car so he wouldn't follow. I know I am not alone in that female songwriters, particularly the younger ones, are made to feel that if they aren't willing to play the flirting game, they are not welcome in Nashville.
People will tell you it’s just how the South is, and maybe some of that is true. I distinctly remember meeting a club owner I didn’t know, and watching him shake the hands of the three songwriting men I came in with. When he tried to hug me instead, I extended my hand to shake, and he pushed it away and said, “That’s not how we do things round here” as he pulled me in for a hug that was clearly against my will. To be clear, I am not a touchy-feely person. Did it make me any less of a performer and songwriter? No. But when you’re a woman in Nashville, you learn very quickly that your willingness to go along with this kind of crap is what ultimately determines your worth.
I don't know what is in store for the future of country music. Contemporary female songwriters like Ashley Monroe and Jenn Schott and hell, even Taylor Swift when she was country, are out fighting the good fight. They are doing amazing things for this industry, and I am so proud of all of the women who are out there gunning for this, especially after experiencing the struggle of it firsthand. But none of this has yet to change the fact that young women in Nashville are still seen more as objects to the people in power than they are seen as humans with empathy and brains who are worthy of consideration.
I get that people are afraid to speak out about it, because it is pretty damning to a career. I get that I will probably receive a lot of flack for this, and that's fine, too. Better me than somebody who has a songwriting career on the line. In the meantime, I will continue to turn on my radio and hear "Like A Cowboy" and whatever recycled garbage Florida Georgia line has come out with about legs and beer and figure that not much in this industry has changed.
Again, I can only speak to what I experienced, and what I watched my friends experience. Of course it's not all of the old men in Nashville. Of course this isn't an experience that everyone will have there. That being said, of all the things people warned me about before I moved, this is the one thing that was most neglected, and most necessary to hear. If you're moving to Nashville as a young female songwriter, or you're already there and still navigating this gendered minefield, then more power to you—because trust me, you've got your work cut out for you.